Case Study Synthesis

This semester I have been exploring how different theories allow me to explore the writing center as an object of study. Different theories allowed me to look at different aspects of the writing center, helping to approach big picture issues or more narrow foci depending on the theory. All theories bring certain things into focus and while excluding other aspects. Thus, often a single theoretical framework may not be sufficient to answer certain questions because key concepts necessary for the answer are excluded. One such question is whether writing centers should (or should not) be housed or institutionally affiliated within English/Writing departments? This question is currently of huge significance because of a trend of institutions moving writing centers into larger student success centers which may have other types of tutoring, disability support, and other academic services. Just this week a thread on the Wcenter listserv centered on the topic. One listserv member wrote, “It is with a broken heart that I share with you the news that the University of X¹ has decided to move the Centre for Writers, currently housed in the Faculty of Arts, into Student Services. As a result, I was told that I will no longer be Director of the Centre for Writers as of June 30th, 2016. An administrative director will be hired sometime this summer.” Another member responded with her own story of relocation:

After more than 35 years as a teaching site overseen by faculty with credentials in rhet/comp-writing center studies, Y College’s Writing Center will now become one unit in a comprehensive (to use our president’s term) “one-stop-shop” incorporating writing, math, and content tutoring, ADA services (fortunately still within the academic area). It seems clear that the move is closely related to the college’s establishment of two programs to serve at-risk students conditionally accepted to the college; I have been informed that a third to a half of the center’s attention will focus on serving those students, not only with tutoring in writing, but also with support for things like time management. Given my understanding of how the center’s mission will be altered–in ways that are clearly not informed by disciplinary theory and practice, and being told that the directorship will be an administrative position with no teaching or professional development opportunities involved, I have decided to step down.

While neither of these stories specifically mentioned their centers being original housed in an English department, they both articulate how the move from an academic department to an administrative unit caused a change of leadership, whether voluntary or not. It’s important to note that whether a writing center is officially affiliated with an English department, an independent writing studies department, or a communications department, these are all academic departments rooted in aspects of English studies concerned with writing or rhetorical instruction. Student success administrative units may not have this rooting.

In their 2011 keynote address at the IWCA conference Andrea Lunsford and Lisa Ede discuss why these types of movements are troubling:

We are thinking, for instance, of a freestanding writing center that was located within the Faculty of Humanities and Sciences—until it was merged with three other “support” units—one for engineers, one for athletes, and one for students with disabilities. Now think for a moment of the competing needs here, not to mention the potentially competing philosophies. In this scene, the writing center director may need not only to be able to negotiate rough currents but to practically walk on water: it could take years of patient and very wise work to unpack conflicting assumptions and to find compromises that will allow such a merged unit to work effectively for the good of all students. (14)

In another thread on the WCenter listserv concerned with this issue, David Ball termed this type of organization the “food court model of student services.” This name signals the lack of quality assumed to be available in these one-stop-shops by drawing comparison to the fast food and minimal service available in food courts compared to most freestanding restaurants. By calling this model “the food court model of student services,” Ball is highlighting the concern of those in the writing center community that this new “convenient” model may move away from best practices of the field. This post will explore how or why this is the case by drawing Foucauldian, ecological and Spinuzzian theories.

In exploring this issue of the physical and institutional placement of a writing center, we can first look at the history and development of writing centers. In “‘Our Little Secret’: A History of Writing Centers, Pre- to Post-Open Admissions,” Elizabeth Boquet traces the history of writing centers through the 1990s. The last decade and a half has seen additional developments with increased technology use leading to multimodal tutoring as well as the recent trend towards consolidation of writing centers with other student support services. Figure 1 is a timeline of the major developments of writing centers and the writing center field.

Figure 1 Historical Timeline of Major Writing Center Developments
Figure 1 Historical Timeline of Major Writing Center Developments

This visualization seems to create a linear trajectory of the field. However, Foucauldian theory complicates this view in helpful ways. Foucault asserts, “The problem is no longer one of tradition, of tracing a line, but one of division, of limits; it is no longer one of lasting foundations, but one of transformations that serve as new foundations, the rebuilding of foundations” (5). Thus Foucault challenges us to rethink that timeline by considering the various transformations and what their foundations were. Early incarnations of writing centers are built on a foundation of valuing skills drills. The writing center was transformed when it was built on new theories coming out of the burgeoning field of rhetoric and composition that were interested in writing and the writer more holistically and that focused on process more than product. This shift marks discontinuity in Foucault’s sense of the concept. Now, this is not to say that writing centers built on this foundation all looked or acted the same. Local situation has also had a large influence on the everyday practices and missions of writing centers. Foucault also speaks to how amidst these differences there could still be a unified concept (and thus a field) or writing centers and writing center studies. He claims, “But perhaps one might discover a discursive unity if one sought it not in the coherence of concepts, but in their simultaneous or successive emergence, in the distance that separates them and even in their incompatibility” (35). Writing centers had a discursive unity from the emergence of ideas from key pieces of scholarship that set the foundation for the field. The first is North’s seminal “The Idea of a Writing Center” in which he proclaimed:

Our job is to produce better writers, not better writing. Any given project-a class assignment, a law school application letter, an encyclopedia entry, a dissertation proposal-is for the writer the prime, often the exclusive concern. That particular text, its success or failure, is what brings them to talk to us in the first place. In the center, though, we look beyond or through that particular project, that particular text, and see it as an occasion for addressing our primary concern, the process by which it is produced. (438)

While this proclamation has been critiqued and engaged with throughout the years, the notion of supporting writers’ process and helping them improve as writers as opposed to “fixing” a particular assignment has been paramount to writing centers and is built on theories and research in rhetoric and composition about teaching writing as a process as opposed to a product.

Another key piece of scholarship is Kenneth Bruffee’s “Peer Tutoring and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’” which built off his article “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind.’” In this piece, Bruffee suggests that for the writing center “our task must involve engaging students in conversation at as many points in the writing process as possible” (7). Thus, Bruffee establishes the writing center as a place to engage in conversation about writing and the writing process. This principle has been central to writing centers, even when face-to-face conversation isn’t possible, such as with the practices of OWLS. I have worked as an online tutor with the company Smarthinking providing asynchronous support to students’ writing. We were trained to engage in a kind of conversation on the page, addressing the writer, asking the writer questions, sharing what we liked and what we had learned from reading the assignment. Conversation has long been the bedrock of writing centers.

Bruffee’s essay also presents another feature that became key to writing centers: writing centers’ separation from the classroom. In supporting a peer tutor model, Bruffee argues that previous support available by professional staff has been eschewed because “the help we were providing…seemed to them merely an extension of the work, the expectations, and above all the social structure of traditional classroom learning. And it was traditional classroom learning that seemed to have left these students unprepared in the first place. What they needed, we had guessed, was help of a sort that was not an extension but an alternative to the traditional classroom” (4). While not all writing centers use peer tutors, one of the defining feature of the writing center is that it is not the classroom. Many writing centers strive to be a separate and safe space for writers.

This newest development of writing centers merging with other support units is worrisome to the writing center community because it marks a likely new discontinuity away from the foundations established by scholars such as North and Bruffee that became the unifying bedrock of writing centers despite their differing localized practices. If we look back at the second responder quoted above from the WCenter listserv, she notes a shifting mission for her center with its physical and institutional move: “I have been informed that a third to a half of the center’s attention will focus on serving those students, not only with tutoring in writing, but also with support for things like time management.” This shift in mission marks a new foundation not built on the principle of space for conversations about writing and the writing process, but one distinctly marked by a focus on retention.

Foucauldian theory and this notion of discontinuity built on shifting foundations then helps explain why this development in the history of writing centers is vitally important because it demonstrates that it could mark the transformation of writing centers into something very different from what they have been. This theory does not, however, begin to speak about how this transformation will affect the people, including students, tutors and writing center administrators, within these centers. For that, I build on the Foucauldian notion of discontinuity with concepts from ecology and Clay Spinuzzi’s activity theory.

Ecological theory focuses on the interconnection between beings and environment. Though a theory originating in the natural sciences, ecology as a theoretical framework has received a good amount of uptake in the fields of composition and writing center studies. Erika Spohrer demonstrates why this framework is so applicable to writing centers:

And while pivotal writing center work may not reference ecology obliquely, the very language we’ve used to describe our interactions with students suggests an undeniable interrelatedness: we refer to Burkean parlours abuzz with conversation; we consider the writer (holistically), not simply the writing; we’re engaged in a conversation of mankind. Our centers are dialogic, and knowledge is created through social interaction. Even contact zones, where conflict occurs, rely on interconnections. The writing center as an ecosystem of interrelatedness has become so routine as to become commonplace. (7)

Thus, since the notion of interrelatedness is key to writing centers, a framework that focuses on interrelations like ecology proves to be a fruitful theory for the field. Yet ecology can also help us think about how writing centers are interconnected within a college and university and thus how factors or actions occurring within a university at large can impact the writing center and the people within it. For example, Rachel Carson offers the following description of biological ecology:

We poison the caddis flies in a stream and the salmon runs dwindle and die. We poison the gnats in a lake and the poison travels from link to link of the food chain and soon the birds of the lake margins become victims. We spray our elms and the following springs are silent of robin song, not because we sprayed the robins directly but because the poison traveled step by step through the now familiar elm leaf–earthworm–robin cycle. These are matters of record, observable, part of the visible world around us. They reflect the web of life–or death–that scientists know as ecology. (qtd. In Spellman 4).

This description highlights a chain of effects. This type of relationship is relevant for thinking about writing centers within a college. Figure 2 is an ecological map of the various factors that are interrelated and ultimately have effects on each other.

Figure 2. Ecological Map of Writing Center Administration Within a College or University
Figure 2. Ecological Map of Writing Center Administration Within a College or University

In this diagram, factors on the left by and large impact factors/practices further to the right. For the question this post is considering, the nodes that seem most relevant are the physical location and institutional affiliation of writing centers, which ultimately affects who is directing the writing center, which in turn affects the training and tutoring practices used in the writing center, which finally affects student experience and learning. However, as this map demonstrates, many of these factors can ultimately be influenced by aspects of the college not visibly directly impacting the center.

The relationship that interests me most within this ecological web is how the physical location of the writing center has such a direct effect on who ultimately directs the center. It’s become a now common trope that when a writing center is merged with other support units the current director is either forcibly let go and/or replaced with an administrator or the director chooses to step down instead of becoming suddenly subordinate to an administrator with little to no knowledge of writing centers. This importance of physical spaces is not a new concept for writing centers. In fact a previous common trope was the marginalized writing center. North describes “the castoff, windowless classroom (or in some cases literally, closet), the battered desks, the old textbooks, a phone (maybe), no budget, and, almost inevitably, a director with limited status-an untenured or non-tenure track faculty member, a teaching assistant, an undergraduate, a ‘paraprofessional,’ etc” (437). Similarly, Lunsford and Ede later claim, “it is also often the case that centers are on the margins, or in the eddies of the stream—in temporary housing, in basements, even in large closets in out of the way buildings. It’s amazing what our colleagues have been able to do from such marginalized locations” (14). The irony of the current moving of writing centers is that it does address this problem. Writing centers merged into “one-stop-shops” often find themselves in prime real estate on campus. They are no longer hidden away in the basement but are central and visible to students. This is why in Figure 2 there is a direct line between the physical location of the writing center and students’ experience. Physical location greatly impacts students’ ability to find and utilize the help provided in the writing center. However, as I have discussed previously while the physical movement of a center can impact the ecological network of the college by making a writing center more central to students, it also seems to have a large impact on who ultimately runs the center.  Thus, while Foucault’s concept of discontinuity demonstrates what is at stake with this new development–a transformation of writing centers because of new foundations–ecology helps think about what impacts or causes this transformation.

The final piece of the puzzle though is to consider how a change in who directs a writing center affects students’ experience and learning. The ecological map presents a chain from director to training/tutoring practices to student experience and learning, which is, I think, enlightening, but it doesn’t help us think about the director herself and what affects her choices regarding training and tutoring practices. Ecology is also a holistic theory, interested in the entire ecological web as opposed to a specific activity or aspect. Spinuzzi’s activity system model provides a helpful framework for approaching the questions of the activity of a writing center director specifically. Figure 3 is Spinuzzi’s activity system diagram with the 4 nodes of the system which will be most impacted depending on who the director of the writing center is.

Figure 3. Spinuzzi's Activity System with Indication of which Nodes are Shaped by Who the Writing Center Director Is
Figure 3. Spinuzzi’s Activity System with Indication of which Nodes are Shaped by Who the Writing Center Director Is

The four nodes of objectives, community, collaborators, and domain knowledge can be changed depending on where the center is located institutionally and who is managing it. The second listserv response, particularly its explanation of why this former director felt she had to step down, points to these changes: “Given my understanding of how the center’s mission will be altered–in ways that are clearly not informed by disciplinary theory and practice, and being told that the directorship will be an administrative position with no teaching or professional development opportunities involved, I have decided to step down.” This response of course highlights a shift in objectives, moving from a North-aligned ideal of helping all writers to a more retention based mission. This response does not elaborate specifically on why she feels the new mission is not aligned with disciplinary best practices, but it does get away from helping all writers. Additionally the retention focus may be a sign of shifting back to lab model of “fix-it” shop. Finally, when a center’s objective is student “success,” its practices may also be inevitably be more directly tied into an ideology of “standard” academic prose with the goal of getting students to sound like they “should” according to this standard instead of helping them express what they want to say more effectively.

The other node that this response highlights is domain knowledge. Effective leadership of a writing center demands knowledge of writing instruction. However, when directors are administrators with little to no teaching experience and have no opportunities to teach or have professional development opportunities to engage in research or attend professional writing conferences, the question becomes how are they supposed to acquire this domain knowledge? This lack of domain knowledge undergirds the concern about these recent mergers within the writing center community since the director will ultimately be responsible for tutor training and defining the tutoring policies and practices within the center.

Closely connected to domain knowledge are community and collaborators of the writing center director’s activity system. Writing center directors who are linked to an academic department involved with composition and rhetoric and are connected to the international writing center community have opportunities to build their domain knowledge through involvement in these communities of practice. Administrators without these connections have completely different collaborators and are part of different communities, perhaps other administrators that have various levels of connection to the actual academic curriculum at the institution. Now, it’s important to note that these connections can sometimes be very positive. Having explicit connections to ADA services to can be beneficial to providing effective support to students with disabilities. Additionally not being officially affiliated with a specific academic department can sometimes offer more opportunities for collaborations with other departments. The writing center that I direct is part of a Learning Center instead of being officially affiliated with the English department, like it had been previously. This move has given me opportunities to build strong connections with departments like Psychology and Math.  However, in some ways, I have the best of both worlds because I still teach writing classes and have professional development opportunities. Ultimately I have domain knowledge and the freedom to define an objective for writing tutoring and services that align with the field, while still having the opportunity to collaborate with people beyond the writing community including other academic departments and disability services.

The problem is that many are not as fortunate as I am, and as this trend of merger continues or increases, the question of where writing centers are housed physically and institutionally will continue to be vital  for the field. As I hope my response has shown, this is a complex question, and as such is not easily answered within one theoretical framework. However, when different concepts from theories are brought together, such as discontinuity from Foucault, holistic interrelation from ecology, and activity system networks from Spinuzzi, we can begin to dig into the question from different angles, see big picture and specifically focused aspects of the question. And it’s through this multi-theoretical approach that we begin to arrive at an answer not only that writing centers should be rooted in some way to English and/or writing studies, but why. If they are not, writing centers may become something else entirely that has little to do with helping students improve as writers and say what they want to say more effectively.


  1. I have removed the names of institutions specifically named in WCenter posts regarding their resignations to protect the identity of the writers. I have also not include these posts in the references because the name of the post names the institution, thus potentially revealing the person who posted initially. 


Ball, D.E. “Re: Forced Resignation.” WCenter Listserv. IWCA, 6 September 2014. Web. 2 May 2016.

Boquet, Elizabeth H.  “‘Our Little Secret’: A History of Writing Centers, Pre- to Post-Open Admissions.” College Composition and Communication 50.3 (1999): 463-483.

Bruffee, Kenneth. “Collaborative Learning and ‘The Conversation of Mankind.'” College English 46.7 (1984): 635-652.

—. “Peer Tutoring and ‘The Conversation of Mankind.'” Writing Centers: Theory and Administration. Ed. Greg A. Olsen.   Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1984. 3-15.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. 1969. Trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Vintage Books, 2010.

Lunsford, Andrea A. and Lisa Ede. “Reflections on Currents in Writing Center Work. The Writing Center Journal 31.1 (2011): 11-24.

North, Stephen. “The Idea of a Writing Center.” College English 46.5(1984): 433-446.

Spellman, Frank R. Ecology for Nonecologists. Lanham: Government Institutes, 2007.

Spinuzzi, Clay. Tracing Genres Through Organizations: A Sociocultural Approach to Information Design. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003.

Spohrer, Erika. “What Margins? The Writing Center at the Small Liberal Arts College.” The Writing Lab Newsletter 31.4 (2006): 7-11.

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